Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Boswell

The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

The art of the epigraph

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The epigraph to Pale Fire

Years ago, in college, when I was working my way through a shelf of great books and dutifully writing down my favorite quotes, I came across the following anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which [Johnson] gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then, in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

It’s a deservedly famous passage—there’s even a statue of Hodge himself outside Johnson’s house in London—and it quickly ended up in my commonplace book. Then, just a few weeks later, I happened to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire for the first time, and I was tickled to find the exact same quote on the epigraph page. It’s still one of the oddest literary coincidences of my life, and although scholars have endlessly debated the significance of the quotation in the context of Nabokov’s extraordinary novel, to me, the moral was clear: quotations have a life of their own, and a line that catches one reader’s eye is likely to attract many others.

The epigraph, as I mentioned yesterday, is one of the most powerful—and underrated—tools in a writer’s arsenal. It appears in a uniquely privileged position at the beginning of a book, and it’s usually the first, and possibly the only, text a reader encounters. (Whenever I repeatedly pick up and drop a book for years, as I did with Gravity’s Rainbow, the epigraphs start to take on a weird prominence in my inner life.) It doesn’t consist of the writer’s own words, but it benefits from what seems like a considered process of selection, and it grows in apparent importance in proportion to its isolation on the page, in the way a random scrap of paper can take on new meaning as the centerpiece of a collage. It’s one of the few moments in a good novel in which the writer’s process appears in the foreground: any authorial decisions in the story itself should seem inevitable, or invisible, but in the epigraph, we see the writer at work, speaking directly to us through someone else’s words. This is particularly true in the case of a novel like Pale Fire, in which the relevance of the epigraph is pointedly obscure. It’s like a clue in a mystery novel, as capable of misleading as much as clarifying, but always turning the reader’s thoughts into unexpected directions.

The epigraphs for Part II

In particular, an epigraph serves two complementary functions: it both sets a tone and conveys additional information. The epigraph to Anna Karenina—”Vengeance is mine; I will repay”—alerts us at once to the fact that this is something more than an epic novel of manners. The epigraphs that Borges puts at the head of his short stories are often nods to his sources and inspirations, like the line from The Anatomy of Melancholy that appears in “The Library of Babel,” or offer a hint as to how the story itself ought to be read, as in the epigraph to “Three Versions of Judas,” taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “There seemed a certainty in degradation.” Foucault’s Pendulum opens with an untranslated quotation from Hebrew, which tells us immediately that this is going to be a polyglot, occasionally impenetrable journey. Eco’s epigraphs here are particularly fascinating: they often include additional tidbits of lore or arcana that provide a kind of running annotation of the main action, like footnotes in epigraph form, a technique that I openly copied in The Icon Thief. (I used the epigraphs to incorporate material that I couldn’t include elsewhere but desperately wanted to preserve, like the implication that Marcel Duchamp may have occasionally appeared in disguise while he was living in New York.)

Ideally, however, an epigraph should leave something to implication. Poetry, for instance, is a rich source of allusive material, which is why the appearance of certain writers, like T.S. Eliot, John Donne, or William Blake, has almost become clichéd from overuse. (I include a quote from John Donne in City of Exiles, but only as part of a larger thread, almost a subplot in itself, that runs through the epigraphs of the last three sections, connecting Donne to The White Goddess and the Book of Ezekiel, with a sideward glance at Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”) And if it manages to strike the right balance between illumination and obscurity, an epigraph can highlight a buried theme that allows the reader to view the entire work in a different light, like the quotation from Dante that opens “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a rule, it’s a mistake to spell out your themes explicitly in the text, but there’s nothing that says you can’t give the reader a nudge in the right direction, and an epigraph is the perfect place for this: it stands slightly outside the body of the narrative, together and apart, and at its best, it can feel like a whispered aside from the author just before the curtain rises.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

“Be not solitary, be not idle”

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The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.

Samuel Johnson, in a letter to James Boswell

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2011 at 8:34 am

Quote of the Day

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I advised Chambers, and would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy.

Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2011 at 8:17 am

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